Battle of Ethandun: Alfred the Great of Wessex Defeats the Danes

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Battle of Ethandun: Alfred the Great of Wessex Defeats the Danes

Statue of Alfred the Great in town of Wantage, Oxfordshire, UK
[Alfred was born in Wantage in A.D. 849]
Sculpted by Prince Victor of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, unveiled in 1877
(Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: May 9, AD 878

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2011.]

Here's another of the many battles which English monarch Alfred the Great fought against the Danes. [If you're really curious, you may see my previous post about Alfred from January, 2010: Battle of Ashdown]


Alfred became ruler of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex on April 23, 871, after his brother Aethelred died, either from wounds sustained fighting the Danes or from disease due to the rigors of the campaign against the Norsemen is not known. Alfred became the king despite the fact that his brother had two under-age sons. Apparently, Alfred and Aethelred had drawn up an agreement that whichever brother survived the other would become king. Then, the new king would give to the sons of the deceased brother whatever titles and lands he saw fit. Owing to the continuing national crisis, Alfred succession went uncontested, as Wessex was sorely in need of a warleader.

Within a month after become king, Alfred was forced to confront the Danish force that still sought to ravage his kingdom. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, this Viking host – known to history as the "Great Heathen Army" – had received reinforcement from overseas in the late spring of 871. Alfred fought two battles with the Vikings in May, one at an unknown site, the other near the town of Wilton, losing both. One account states that the Vikings were riding to Wilton to try and capture Alfred alive, as he was attending his brother's funeral in the town. Because of these twin defeats, Alfred was forced to realize that he could not readily defeat the marauding Norsemen. Instead, according to the Chronicle, he "made peace with them." Coin hoards found in and around London show a large number of Saxon coins dated 871/872, probably indicating that Alfred paid the Danes "protection money."

The Great Heathen Army and the Ragnarsson Brothers

The Great Heathen Army had its origins in a Viking force which had besieged Paris in 845, led by the semi-legendary leader and self-proclaimed king of Denmark Ragnar Lodbrok ("Hairy-Breeches"). He managed to convince the weak Frankish monarch, Charles the Bald, to pay him 7000 pounds in silver to spare the city. For the next 25 years, his army ravaged France and Germany usually finding a haven to winter in a particular region, rather than sailing back home. In 865, Ragnar decided to attack the Saxon kingdoms of England. What made this attack different from previous raids was that Ragnar was intent on conquering the island, not just raiding it. The size of this force has been a matter of conjecture, with some estimates as high as 5000 men. Recent scholars believe it was actually somewhere in the area of 500 to 1000 men.

Death of Ragnar c. AD 865 (1830)
Etching by Hugo Hamilton

However, Ragnar did not accomplish his goal. According to the sagas, he fell into the hand of King Ælla, ruler of the kingdom of Northumbria in northern England. As punishment for his raids, Ragnar was thrown into a pit full of venomous snakes. [This scene is recreated in the 1958 film, The Vikings, with Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar and Frank Thring as King Ælla.] According to the saga known as "Krákumál," Ragnar said the following as he lay dying:

"It gladdens me to know that Baldr's father [Odin] makes ready the benches for a banquet.
Soon we shall be drinking ale from the curved horns.
The champion who comes into [Valhalla] does not lament his death.
I shall not enter his hall with words of fear upon my lips.
The Æsir will welcome me. Death comes without lamenting…
Eager am I to depart. The Disir summon me home,
Those whom Odin sends for me [Valkyries] from the halls of the Lord of Hosts.
Gladly shall I drink ale in the high-seat with the Æsir.
The days of my life are ended. I laugh as I die."

Ragnar also expressed the hope that, when his sons learned of his death, they would avenge him. When word of Ragnar's demise reached his three sons, they were not pleased. Consequently, the three took over leadership of the Great Heathen Army. They vowed to conquer all of England and make the Saxons suffer for their father's death. The three sons – Halfdan, Ubbe, and Ivar (called "the Boneless" for reasons unknown) – invaded Northumbria in 866, defeated King Ælla in battle the following year, captured him and executed him. The manner of his death is rumored to have been the blood-eagle. [For more on this supposed Viking torture technique please see my post from March of 2013, Battle of York.]

With the conquest of Northumbria, the Vikings established the kingdom of York (which they called "Jorvik") and began settling the conquered land. By 874, continued attacks by the Vikings caused the collapse of the kingdoms of Kent, Mercia and East Anglia. Eventually, the Danes took over nearly half of the Saxon-settled areas of England. This area became known as "the Danelaw," where Danish customs, law and language predominated.

England in 878; Danish-controlled areas (the "Danelaw") in yellow
England in 878; Danish-controlled areas (the "Danelaw") in yellow

Sometime after 869 Ivar left command of the Great Heathen Army and of the Danes in England to his brothers. He appears to have emigrated to Dublin and founded a ruling dynasty. By about 875, Halfdan took a portion of the Great Heathen Army and went back north, seeking to raid or conquer the Picts and the Strathclyde Welsh. He would eventually die in battle against the Irish in 877. The remaining Ragnarsson brother, Ubbe, took a large raiding party to the western coast of Wessex, just south of Wales. There, he was killed by Saxon militia in the battle of Cynwit (the Chronicle only gives the year of 878 for this fight). Besides the loss of Ubbe and his men, the Saxons also captured Ragnar's famed "Raven Banner."

This left command of the Great Heathen Army to Guthrum, a Norse chieftain of unknown origins. Apparently, he was a leader of the reinforcements of 871. With all three of the Ragnarsson brothers out of the picture, Guthrum assumed leadership and continued the drive to conquer Wessex.

The Road to Ethandun

In the first six months of his reign, Alfred fought the Great Heathen Army in at least nine pitched battles – the Chronicle only names six – as well as innumerable raids. Finally, near the end of 871, both sides were nearly exhausted. Consequently, Alfred made a truce with the Vikings with the understanding that the Danes would leave Wessex and return east toward London. Alfred's biographer, Asser, is silent on the terms of the truce, but it is highly likely that the Norsemen were bought off with more extortion money. The Vikings took a roundabout route, first moving north into Saxon Mercia, then heading southeast to London, stripping eastern Wessex of corn, salted meat and cattle as they went.

Alfred realized he needed breathing room to re-build his army and defenses. Over the next several years, Alfred built a number of forts, called burhs, to guard river crossings, strategic crossroads, and other strong points the Vikings might use. He also began building warships modeled after the Norse longships. The West Saxons had some minor victories in these years, but no final blow to defeat the Vikings.

One of the tactics the Danes often used was to attack an objective on the day of or the day after a religious holiday. They used that tactic once more on the day after Twelfth Night – January 5 – of the year 878. It was traditionally the last of the 12 days of Christmas. Taking advantage of the merrymaking on this night, and the likely communal hangover of the next day, Guthrum and his Vikings launched a cross-country raid against Alfred, who was celebrating the holiday at his estate at Chippenham. The Saxons were caught flat-footed, and the majority of Alfred's army was destroyed. Alfred fled with a small bodyguard, and hid in the woods and fens of the Somerset Levels.

The Vikings then followed another of their usual tactics. They established a fortified camp at Chippenham, and began ravaging the area while waiting for Alfred to come to terms with them. Instead, Alfred went into hiding, licking his wounds and preparing for a chance to strike the Vikings. It seems likely that Alfred at that time did not have the necessary strength to re-take his fortified estate at Chippenham, especially in this age where siege warfare was lacking.

Alfred scolded by the goatherd's wife for allowing bread to burn; Illustration by James William Edmund Doyle from A Chronicle of England… (1864)
Alfred scolded by the goatherd's wife for allowing bread to burn
Illustration by James William Edmund Doyle from A Chronicle of England… (1864)

There is a story that during this time period, Alfred was traveling incognito and sought shelter in the home of a goatherd. The man's wife tasked Alfred with watching some bread which was baking on the hearth, making sure the loaves did not burn. She left on an errand, leaving Alfred to ponder his situation. When the woman returned, she found Alfred deep in contemplation and her bread burnt. She upbraided Alfred for his negligence, and he accepted her words humbly.

Finally, about seven weeks after Easter (which fell on March 27 in 878), Alfred sent out word to muster the fyrd from Somerset, Wiltshire and part of Hampshire. The Chronicle said they gathered at Ecgbert's Stone, apparently a place where a previous Wessex ruler had mustered troops and held court (the place is known locally as "Court Hill"). Alfred's emergence from his marshland stronghold was part of a carefully planned offensive. This meant not only that the king had retained the loyalty of his noblemen and other local officials (who were charged with levying and leading these forces), but that they had maintained their positions of authority in these localities well enough to answer Alfred's summons to war. An eighth-century document indicated that as many as 4000 men could have been assembled from these two full and one partial shires.

Knowing that Guthrum and his Vikings were encamped at his old Chippenham estate, Alfred and his fyrd marched quickly, hoping to surprise the Norsemen (there is the possibility that the Saxons were all mounted). As he approached Chippenham, the king received reports that Guthrum had received word of Alfred's approach, and had mustered a large Danish force at Ethandun  – another of the king's estates –  blocking his line of march. Alfred decided to try and surprise the Vikings. He ordered his fyrd to dismount and march through the night. According to Asser, the Saxons arrived near Ethandun, which was outside the village of Edington in Wiltshire. [There is another town with the same name in Somersetshire, but most historians favor the Wiltshire location.] They arrived at the Viking camp at dawn, and almost immediately launched an attack.

The Battle

One modern estimate of the size of the forces gives Alfred's army a total of 2900 men, while Guthrum commanded 3500. Surely, even at a distance of 1100+ years, these numbers are pure speculation. In fact, considering the importance of this battle to the rest of Alfred's reign, the actual description of the fight is…well, rather meager. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it states simply:

And one day later he went from those camps [near Ecgbert's Stone?] to Iley Oak, and one day later to Ethandun; and there he fought against the entire host [the Danes], and put it to flight…

Anglo-Saxon fyrdmen; [These are members of the "great fyrd, note the lack of metal armor and helmets]; Image courtesy of
Anglo-Saxon fyrdmen
[These are members of the "great fyrd, note the lack of metal armor and helmets]
Image courtesy of

Alfred's biographer Asser adds only a little more, saying:

When the next day dawned Alfred moved his forces and came to a place called Ethandune, and fighting fiercely in close order [one translation says "dense shieldwall"] against the entire pagan army, he persevered resolutely for a long time; at length he gained the victory by God's will. He destroyed the pagans with great slaughter, and smiting the fugitives, he pursued them as far as the fortress [i.e., Chippenham].

…and there you have it! Rather thin gruel, wouldn't you say? There is not even hard evidence for the actual site of the battle, as no topographical information at all is given by any account. Historians have proposed four possible sites, which include:

  • Bratton Camp, an old Iron Age hill-fort near Edington (see illustration below). The Vikings often liked to use such places as secure fall-back positions;
  • Edington Hill, also near the village. At its southward end the hill forms a neck of land with a steep slope guarding its western flank and making a strong defensible position;
  • An ancient ditch on a plain three miles south of Edington, which sits athwart the likely route of Alfred's approach to Chippenham, offers a very good defensive position. A local landmark, suggestively named Battlebury Hill, sits nearby. However, this site lies rather far from where the Ethandun estate was located. Finally;
  • There is the possibility that Alfred caught the Danes completely unawares, attacking them in or around the village of Edington itself.

It is tantalizing to imagine Alfred's forces, arrayed in a single, long shieldwall, confronting the Vikings, who probably also drew up in a similar long line of interlocking shields, perhaps on Edington Hill or behind the ditch mentioned above. Perhaps both sides eyeballed each other for a while. Then, the Vikings, realizing they were facing a determined, vengeful foe, launched an all-out attack on the Saxon shieldwall, with frenzied desperation. Javelins and arrows flew, the shouts of the Danes, the smashing of battleaxes on wooden shields, the resolute courage of the men of Wessex. Finally, the Vikings having spent their energy against a seemingly unbreakable wall of shields and spears, began their retreat back to their stronghold at Chippenham, with the West Saxon fyrd in hot pursuit like hounds after a boar. But, that is just my view…

Bratton Camp, Wiltshire, UK today
Bratton Camp, Wiltshire, UK today


Modern historians speculate that the Danes lost nearly one-third of their men, the Saxon probably an equal number. The Saxons pursued the fleeing Vikings, slaughtering any enemy they caught. The losers fled back to Chippenham, which Alfred blockaded. He took the further precaution of capturing the Vikings' cattle herds and their horses. He also stripped the countryside bare of any provisions which raiding parties might find. After two weeks, the Norsemen "thoroughly terrified by hunger, cold and fear and in the end by despair, sought peace."

Alfred received hostages from Guthrum, but gave none in return – a huge break with past practices. Instead, Guthrum and his chief men "swore great oaths" to leave Wessex immediately. Finally, they were compelled to receive Christian baptism. This ceremony took place about three weeks later, sometime in the second week of June, at the town of Aller. Guthrum and 30 of his chief men were baptised, and Alfred stood as Guthrum's godfather, giving the Danish leader the Christian name of Athelstan. Then, according to Asser, "Alfred bestowed many excellent treasures on him and his men."

The baptism of Guthrum and his men at Aller, with Alfred as Guthrum's sponsor, gave Alfred some moral sway over the warriors of the Danelaw. The spiritual parenthood established by Alfred over Guthrum must inevitably have implied some level of cultural and political superiority, and Guthrum, as the spiritual son of Alfred, was in turn supposed by the Saxons to have acknowledged the future on-going superiority of the king whose religion he had been forced to adopt. However, the Danes disputed this. Most Vikings still held the "White Christ" as just one of a number of gods which they worshipped when they saw fit.

Guthrum apparently kept his promise not to attack Wessex. He concentrated on governing that portion of England over which he held sway. As part of his rulership, Guthrum also minted coins which bore his Christianized name of Athelstan. He ruled East Anglia as a Christian king until his death in 890.

One of Guthrum's (Athelstan's) coins
One of Guthrum's (Athelstan's) coins

With the immediate threat of Guthrum neutralized, Alfred now concentrated on his rule of Wessex.  Alfred reorganized the taxation system, updated the system used to call up the fyrd, reformed the legal system, and expanded centers for learning and religion. King Alfred the Great – the only English monarch to receive that sobriquet – lived until October 26, 899, probably dying of Crohn's disease, which had dogged him most of his adult life.

Footnote #1: Alfred's remains were eventually interred at Hyde Abbey, a Benedictine monastery near Winchester. However, when King Henry VIII dissolved all English monasteries in 1539, Hyde Abbey was torn down and Alfred's grave left intact. Then in about 1788 a prison was being constructed on the old abbey site by convicts. Three stone coffins were found, which were opened, stripped of their lead linings, and the bones scattered.

Footnote #2: A monument to the battle was dedicated in the year 2000 close to the Bratton Camp site (see below). A plaque with the monument states:

To commemorate the battle of Ethandun fought in this vicinity May 878 AD
when King Alfred the Great defeated the Viking army,
giving birth to the English nationhood.
Unveiled by the 7th Marquess of Bath 5th November 2000.

Footnote #3: Besides the usual Internet sources, I owe some of the background of this battle to the book "Battles of the Dark Ages: British Battlefields AD 410 to 1065" by Peter Marren (Pen & Sword Books Ltd., 2006).

Footnote #4: In 1969, the movie Alfred the Great premiered, starring David Hemmings as Alfred. He is portrayed as a physically weak, but iron-willed man, who sought to resist the Vikings and unite all the kingdoms of England under him.

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